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AJUMA

By TJ Davis

Smashwords Edition

Copyright © 2010 Gentlemen Tree Publishing


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DEDICATION


To all the writers that came before me and cleared the trail.



CONTENTS


Acknowledgements

Favors for Neighbors

Only in Dreams

Ajuma

Expulsion

About the Author


ACKNOWLEDGMENTS


Special thanks to Joshua Lorenzo Newett for publishing this collection.



FAVORS FOR NEIGHBORS


I shall pass through this world but once. Any good therefore that I can do or any kindness that I can show to any human being, let me do it now. Let me not defer or neglect it, for I shall not pass this way again.

-Mahatma Gandhi


Letter to the editor from May 28th, 2010

Hey neighbors:

My high school community service teacher at Winona Senior High, John Ruggeburg, once told us that “doing a little bit of good is better than nothing.” 

I remembered those words for years, but I can’t say I’ve followed them as much as I should have. 

I just returned from overseas, and I find myself in Winona for the summer. I have no commitments until August. I want to volunteer my time to help others. 

The problem is I’m restless. 

I don’t think I can pick just one kind of service, so I want you to pick for me. You can have my time for a day or 10 minutes; it’s up to you. 

Is there anything I can help you with? Do you want someone to do your dishes? Walk your dog? Need a volunteer for a charity or organization? If you provide the ingredients, I’ll even cook you a meal. I’m 26 and have a reasonably strong back. I like working outside, but air conditioning is fine too. 

I am at your service. The ground rules: I won’t accept payment. I’m not doing this for money. I have a list of charities you can donate to if you feel like you want to do something in return.

I won’t do anything illegal. I will only assist you up to one day. I’m going for breadth here, not depth. I won’t do anything that would make my girlfriend want to cause me bodily harm. She’s strong.

I’ve got free time and want to help. If there’s anything I can do for you, you can e-mail me: favorsforneighbors@gmail.

I have no idea what kind of response to expect from this, but I’ll try to get to as many of you as possible. It will be first come, first served. Please let me know the time, place, and what you want me to do. Let me know if I can be of service to you.


June 4th, 12:19 am

I’m writing this from my parents’ basement. I’m supposed to be going to Perrot State Park tomorrow with a 7th grade class and my former 6th grade teacher, but it looks like it might rain. It’s also supposed to rain on Saturday, when I’m set to be a “floater” at the Dakota Gathering. A floater is basically a person who goes around and helps whomever needs helping. It’s good because it usually means you’re always busy and moving.

Getting interviewed for the newspaper was strange. It was weird being asked about something that hadn’t happened yet. I didn’t tell anyone about what I was doing; I just wrote the letter and figured it would work itself out. The reporter, Ken, was the kind of guy you wanted to tell stuff to; he was instantly easing. The photographer didn’t say much. I really don’t remember much of what I said for that matter. No mistakes in the article at least. I see the article every day when I make breakfast. Momma put it on the pantry door. I do hate that picture though. I like the one with me dressed up like Santa with my students back in Korea, but that’s only available via the newspaper’s internet page.

People seem curious about this project of mine, and I am too. I don’t know how it’s going to go. I can tell you how it’s going right now, better than expected. I’ve had over thirty offers the last time I checked. The day the article ran was when the vast majority of people emailed me, but even today there was another trickle of people who wanted some help.

Dana was the first person I helped. I had met him before, and I heard from my cousin Abby about him wanting people to strip the pontoon that day. We went near Airport Lake and met up with Dana and his daughter Gretchen. We dismantled the pontoon, basically transforming it into a dock. We ripped, pulled, unscrewed, and threw off everything we could to flatten it out. We worked a few hours on it, and by then the sun was going down. At sunset Dana gave me a beer, and we got bit by mosquitoes. I remember ripping up the carpet gave my hands the first of many blisters and bloody cuts of the summer.

Adam is my oldest friend in Winona. Whenever I go back, Adam’s always there. He was moving into a new house, so I helped him with that. During the cleanup we found a dead bird in his house. He put a bunch of stuff on the curb, and even though he doesn’t live on a busy street, almost everything was gone within an hour. Adam also gave me beer for my service.

Kathy was the first stranger. A nonstop chatterbox, it was a strange mix of connection, humor, annoyance, and sadness working with her. I’m not even going to attempt to describe her, but she is what my mom would call a “character”. Her neighbor helped with the task, which was moving her stuff from her trailer to a new apartment. I remember taking everything off of the walls and putting them into boxes. It’s interesting to see what people decide to get rid of when they move.

Aledda and Tom were today. They were an incredibly welcoming and grateful couple. However, the paint was terrible to work with. It was like slapping mud on a wall, and then it would get dry and come off just like sunburnt skin. Adam came and helped paint the porch with me. Aledda gave us some really good strawberries while we worked.

I suppose I should include the Chihuahua incident. The nameless dog was wondering on the river road, where the speed limit is 40 mph. The river road is the quickest way for me to get from my house to downtown Winona. It runs along the Mississippi river, and you can see Wisconsin across the water. I saw a line of cars stopped at an odd stretch of the road. After a little while of sitting in the truck, I saw a tiny black Chihuahua walking down the road. I got out, and so did the woman behind me. We eventually cornered it under a car, and she picked up the little critter. Now, I was assuming that the dog had jumped out of its owner’s car, but when we turned around, all of the cars ahead of my truck had gone away.

“Whose fucking dog is this?” she asked.

“I don’t know, put it in the truck.” I tried calling the number on the tags and eventually got in touch with a man. It was his daughter’s dog. She was a nursing student in Winona and was still in class for a while. I tried going to the humane society, but they were closed. So I gave the owner Adam’s address and dropped the dog off with him. The owner came after a little bit and picked up her tiny dog.

Around town I’ve been getting a lot of people saying, “It’s that guy,” or “Are you that guy?” On one hand it’s great to be recognized for doing something good. On the other hand it feels awkward to be a topic of conversation. I give pretty short answers to people’s questions. I guess it’s about service, and seeing how generous I can be. I wanted to stop putting that kind of thing off. That’s as deep as I’ve dug so far.

I’ve been falling asleep to the podcast “Stuff You Missed in History Class” the past few days. There’s something about the two women’s voices that’s comforting and relaxing. It’s strange to be sleeping alone. I miss Denise, but tonight I was learning about the Pony Express. It was basically a faster way to deliver mail that had young, light riders on, well, ponies. I learned that the guy who delivered Abe Lincoln’s inaugural address did so after getting shot in the face with an arrow. That’s commitment. That’s fucking service. What I’m doing is quirky, and it’s not going to amount to anything beyond what it is. It’s just a little help.

By the way, the song that should be playing during the movie montage of all the people and activities I encounter is “Help” by The Beatles. If somebody could lend the money to pay for it, I’ll wash your dishes. I bought Under the Dome by Stephen King, 1078 pages of hand-numbing fiction. Seriously, I just dropped it on my hand while checking how many pages are in it. It hurts.

It’s hard to keep all the addresses, names, and times straight. I’ve got a “things to do list”, and a “favors for neighbors” list. Yep, that’s what I call it in my head.

It’s been interesting to read people’s emails. Everyone, with the exception of one, has ranged from nice to extremely complimentary. There’s one message that I just didn’t understand. I reread it, and it still made no sense to me. It sounded as if he were the phantom of the opera writing below the sewers. He was also the only person, that I know of, that lied about his name. How do I know this? Because he wrote “fake name” in parenthesis next to the name he had given.

The one that has made me laugh the most was by a man who wrote less than ten words, and it was perfectly clear what he needed help with. Sal, just Sal. Even his name shows brevity.

When people invoke god or write things like “You’re the answer to their prayers,” I feel uncomfortable. Religious people do tend to volunteer more. I’m guessing that’s true for most religions, but I will never see myself as the answer to someone’s prayers. There is no higher being pushing me forward. This is just an idea that I had. Anyone can do this.

I think Favors for Neighbors started because of a little Laotian notebook. Denise gave it to me. It’s got a black cover with gold lettering. I have no idea what it says or if it’s just a design. Inside, the paper is handmade, and there are two palm leaves pressed between the first and last pages. It’s a beautiful book. Thick, rough pages. Small too, about 6x5 inches. I looked at the book and didn’t know what to write in it. Then I got the idea of other people writing in it. I had wanted to volunteer in Winona. I thought I would be able to find something interesting to do through one of the organizations in town. I couldn’t really find much in the way of volunteering. I suppose I didn’t look very hard either, so I wrote a letter to the editor.

I don’t remember much from writing the letter. I knew I looked over it very carefully. It’s bad when people make writing mistakes, but it’s always worse when an English teacher does it. I remember sitting on my bed and writing it. I thought the rules were a nice touch. Three simple 'Thou Shalt Nots’. But some of them are more flexible than others.


1. I won’t receive payment.

Not completely true. I’ve received items each time. So far they’ve been beer, water, a dinner at Lakeview Drive-In, fajitas, pasta salad, strawberries, and a banana. Basically a lot of food and beverages.


2. Nothing illegal.

Hasn’t come up yet.


3. Nothing my girlfriend would disapprove of.

We’re good on this one too.


So, that’s it for tonight then. Let’s see if it rains.


June 4th, 9:46 pm

Today I hiked up Brady’s Bluff four times. Winona Middle School had a field trip to Perrot State Park in Wisconsin, and my 6th grade science teacher, Mrs. Tufvesson, had asked me to help out. I rode in a school bus with forty eight students across the river to get there. The first two hikes were with Mr. Hunt. He was an extremely nice man with a T-shirt tucked into his shorts, a mustache, and a mouth that seemed to always be moving diagonally when he talked. He took lead on the first hike.

First hike: The first hike was mysterious. Everything was new, and I never knew when it was going to end. A three-walled “cabin” stood at the top of the trail. Many of the railings were covered with carvings of people’s names, sometimes couple’s. My favorite graffiti was etched in all capital letters. I turned a corner, looked up, and saw the word POOP. It gets points for originality at least. The woods were full green since it had rained the night before. I was sweating and panting, but it wasn’t too bad.

All day I talked with seventh graders. During the first hike, when I was tail, it was a short boy with a big backpack. Backpack informed me that he had ten bottles of water in his backpack, which he intended to give to his classmates if they were thirsty. When we reached the bottom another boy came up to me saying, “I wish I had water.” I called out to Backpack, and he came over and quickly became the most popular kid in the group. He told me at the end of the day that he had given away all ten bottles.

Second hike: I took lead on this one, and immediately took us in the wrong direction. We turned around, and on the way back to the real trail we spotted a garter snake in the grass. I don’t remember much from the second hike except that I took us up to the top pretty fast. When we got to the first lookout I told the kids they should hurry and carve their names before Mr. Hunt showed up from the rear of the line. Another student had a Busan, South Korea T-shirt with a Korean flag. This seemed like an odd coincidence because that was the South Korean city that I had lived in for the past two years. I asked him why he had it and found out there had been a foreign exchange student from Korea in Winona last year. On my way down a boy asked me whose dad I was.

Third hike: After lunch--Momma’s cornbread, an apple, and some trail mix--I took the lead with Mrs. Tufvesson in the rear. The third hike was probably the toughest. It was starting to get hot. There was one very sweet girl at the front of the line that I had a chat with. On the way down, she was more toward the rear, and she slipped. Nothing serious, but from what I gather it was the nastiest spill of the day. She said she was alright. This was the first hike when one of the students didn’t make it to the top. Another student got a horrible headache and looked like she was going to burst into tears.

Last hike: It was sunny, and I was taking the rear. The group was boys and one girl. On the way down, I noticed a boy in the rear was holding up his pants. I know I’ve had days when I’d forgotten to wear a belt. Your pants are fine at first, but then they start to loosen up; it’s a pretty uncomfortable predicament. So I did something I’ve never done for a student before: I lent him my belt. In Minnesota, sometimes we say I borrowed him my belt. We had a nice talk about baseball and water parks, and for the second time that day, Korea came up. He was going to travel in Korea with his Mom in August.

By then we were back to the rest of the students. We moved some wooden benches from the fish dissection area. Then we were back on the bus. On the way back I talked more with Mrs. Tufvesson and got to catch up a lot. She signed the book. So far, it’s my favorite entry. Favorite line: What an animal!

Mrs. Tufvesson. One of my favorite teachers. Fifty-one years old now (sorry!) I had her as a sixth grade teacher thirteen years ago. She is one of the few people I know that look exactly the same as she did thirteen years ago. She was a tear on the trail too. She’s a teacher that gets through to their students by pure kindness. By simply saying “C’mon guys” they all pay attention and follow directions.

I remember dissecting a deer’s heart, making a robot with Legos, and finding out my blood type in her class. She’s an incredibly caring teacher. When I came to the school the day before to get a permission form for volunteering, she called my name, and gave me a hug while holding a frog she was about to dissect. It dangled between her fingers. Good ole Mrs. Tufvesson.


June 6th, 10:35 pm

Looks like I’m starting to get behind. I have a headache and want to go to sleep.

Yesterday was the Dakota Gathering. It was basically a chance for Native American people from around the area to share their culture with Winona residents. It took place between the big lake and the hospital. I served food, got wood, and got wheelchairs when I first got there. Then it started pouring rain, and I pulled in trash cans and PA equipment. I got to see my uncle Maynard.

During the huge dinner I learned about Little Crow. While everyone was waiting in line I just sat and read Under the Dome surrounded by people. I like that fact that when I’m reading a good book I can be completely oblivious to what goes on around me. I talked about Korea with one of the other volunteers and gave her a ride home. Then I went back to the Dakota Gathering and helped clean up the dining area.

Today I painted the inside of a garage. I got two delicious fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip/peanut butter/M&M/oatmeal cookies as a payment. Then I cleaned the gutters. While cleaning the gutters I fell off a ladder, and my ankle feels funny now. The woman was the first person to donate, as far as I know.

Later in the day I went up to the vineyard. I had worked there a few years before, helping to plant the grapes. For my second act of volunteering today I helped my friend Ryan’s family. We weeded, reburied the potatoes, and built a fire pit. While we were working on the potatoes it rained for a little bit. When we went back out we saw a complete double rainbow.

My headache is getting worse. Wonder if I’m doing too much. Tuesday is looking like a day off. I might start working at the vineyard to make some money. It will fit in nice with the volunteering because I can come and go as I please. Now it’s time for Under the Dome and hopefully, sleep.


June 8th, 10:33 pm

Today I took the morning off. The person that I offered to help was out of town, and it felt like it was time to sleep in. Yesterday I had gone to Goodview and done some weeding and yard work for a teacher at Cotter, the private high school in Winona. Her house was relatively close, so I rode my bike there. I had finally pumped up the tires and put a kickstand on it (correctly I hope). It was fast and easy work. Weeding in her garden was a lot easier than the potatoes on the farm had been the day before. After digging up some nuisance plants with a shovel, by hand and with a trowel, I raked part of the back yard. Then we sat on the porch and she gave me peaches and water. We talked about traveling and her family mostly. Then we talked about India, which is the only other country she had been to.

Denise had to go the hospital the day before. She suspects an unhygienic cook.

I finished volunteering pretty early, so I went over the vineyard to learn how to prune the grapevines, which I did today, for a bit. It rained in the morning, and there was a crappy little drizzle all day. I did a bit of pruning with Mathew before helping to move some furniture for someone who was moving. Got back to the farm and pruned vines for a couple of hours by myself before calling it quits for the day.

I’m currently on page 729 in Under the Dome. The new Josh Ritter CD is playing. Tonight I made some delicious fish tacos. Here’s how:

4 oz. fish filet

¾ cup of rice

1 tsp. salt

1 tsp. chili power

2 tsp. black pepper

Sour cream

Mozzarella cheese

Tortillas

Fresh cilantro


Mix the cilantro in the cooked rice, put the spices together and sprinkle on the fish filet. It makes three fish tacos.

They were delicious. I asked Momma to try them, but she said there were too many strange things in them. “You lost me when you said fish and taco.” They weren’t even close to as good as the ones I’ve had in Austin, Texas, but it was a good dinner. Tomorrow I’m working at the vineyard in the morning and moving costumes for the Cinderella play in the afternoon.

Somebody told me today that I should make more time for myself this summer. Maybe not do so much working. The thing is, I’ve enjoyed the volunteering, and it’s great to be working at the vineyard again. I like working outside and having something new to do every day. Plus, the feeling of doing something for someone else is addictive. My book is filling up with people’s thank yous, so I might have to start telling people to write smaller.

I love teaching, and I can’t wait until fall when I get to do it again, but it’s also rewarding to see a task in front of me. A task that I can finish and be able to see; a pile of compost or an empty pail of paint that says, “I did this.”

Yesterday my old roommate from college called and said he had a pile of dishes he wants me to do. He’s in Minneapolis, and his mom had sent him the article. Kyle, former roommate and partner in crime, is biking over seventy miles for MS this weekend. That’s something that I would love to do, but I also like having an unsore ass.

Denise was trying to get her old boss to donate things to the places she’s volunteering in India. Hopefully somebody I help wants to donate money or books for the Tibetan refugees she works with. Alright, I worked, cleaned, studied Portuguese, took part of my Massachusetts license practice test, and wrote this. Sounds like a good day. It’s time for Under the Dome and “Stuff You Missed in History Class,” then sleep.


June 10, 6:57 pm

I have to write this fast because the Twins game starts in thirteen minutes. Yesterday, I moved costumes for the Cinderella play that’s going to be running at St. Mary’s. I was scheduled for 4:30-7. We packed everything in a truck from downtown, then drove to St. Mary’s to drop them off. I got to see the stage and learn a bit about the group, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars for people with special needs in Winona County. It only took about 45 minutes for everything. It ended so quickly that I didn’t have the chance to ask the guy in charge to write in the book. I saw the only other younger person that had helped move the costumes in the parking lot. I asked her to simply write “helped move costumes” and sign her name. I think she suspects I’m crazy.

Today was cloudy and rainy all day. I wanted to go up to the vineyard this afternoon and work on the vines, but it’s a terrible day for it. On the bright side of things, I met the most fascinating man today. He called my house before I even left to make sure I had shoes that would work on steep slopes in the woods. It turned out he lived right next to one of my former baseball buddies. I had to have Momma drop me off since our other car is getting fixed, and I didn’t feel like biking for two hours to get there.

I heard the man before I saw him. He was an older man screaming something from behind the enormous garden in their front yard. He appeared, driving a three-wheeler with a trailer behind it.

“Hi Luke, thanks for coming out,” he said, killing the engine and extending his hand.

“Tyler…I’m Tyler, Luke’s your neighbor.”

“Oh right, sorry these drugs I’m on mess with my brain.”

This was the beginning of what would turn out to be an endless supply of surprising comments and stories. He explained the work, which was digging up pine trees and transplanting them in the forest behind his house. To get into the garden we had to bend over, sneak under some butternut trees, and avoid stepping on the rows of carrots, cabbage, and other green things that were sprouting up healthily throughout the gardens. We dug. We talked.

The first thing I noticed was the irritation I felt on my forearms and legs where they had scraped the pine trees. “Now if you get some of these red marks,” he said while showing the red spots on his forearms, “don’t worry. They’ll go away on their own.”

He had eleven herniated discs in his back and neck which made him have to take nightly doses of morphine. He’d been born in Louisiana but had lived all over the States including Alaska for quite a long time. He’d also done almost every kind of manual labor you could think of. Working on oil rigs in the gulf, being an electronic engineer, state park employee, scraping asbestos, amateur wine maker, and many more I can’t remember. He was constantly calling the names of his cats, some of which had last names. There were five on the property. He would talk to them in silly voices. Every once in a while I would see one come and watch us work.

Among the nuggets of wisdom I learned today: If you scrape off the needles of the soft pine trees, you could chew the pulp and get vitamin C. There are battery-free planes that are started by spinning the propeller like they are the Price Is Right wheel. “Just be sure not to get in the way because once it gets started it’ll cut your head off.” His son got screwed on his unemployment benefits because he actually GOT a job. Go government! I learned how to make wine.


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